In the 1992 dystopian novel, The Children of Men, P. D. James tells the story of a world where no child has been born in 26 years. It’s a world without hope or purpose. Mass suicide by the elderly is common, and the not-yet-elderly are urged to watch pornography in vain hopes of stimulating libidos and reproduction.
Mind you, the story is set in our very own year of 2021. In the book, male sperm counts collapsed in 1994 — called “Year Omega” in the novel — with the last children being born in 1995. While James’ story is fiction, in the real 2021, life may be imitating art. Male sperm counts around the world are in decline and, by one estimate, a real “Year Omega” could arrive in 2045.
According to a new book by Shanna Swan, an epidemiologist at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, between 1973 and 2011 sperm counts in Western males dropped by 59 percent. In the ten years since then, things have gotten worse. As Swan writes, “If you look at the curve on sperm count and project it forward — which is always risky — it reaches zero in 2045 . . . That’s a little concerning, to say the least.”
The decline in male sperm counts coincides with a precipitous decline in fertility rates, not only in the West but increasingly in the developing world, too. Half of the world’s countries have fertility rates below replacement level as of now, and by 2050 this is expected to rise to two-thirds. The obvious questions are, one, what role do declining sperm counts play in this fertility drop? And two, what’s behind the declining sperm counts?
Swan acknowledges that nonbiological factors, such as “contraception, cultural shifts and the cost of having children are likely” to have contributed to declining birth rates. But she insists that there is ample evidence for biological reasons, as well. Besides the decline in birth rates, she points to things such as “increasing miscarriage rates, more genital abnormalities among boys and earlier puberty for girls.”
As for the cause in declining sperm counts, Swan and others single out ...